Little Wished-for Deaths

Six months and several hospitalizations later, we met with a hospice care team. His swallow reflex was weakening, allowing food and drink into his lungs, causing repeated pneumonia. He was on a special diet that included thickened liquids, which he hated. And he wasn’t responding well to treatment anymore.

The morning after the meeting, I sat with him. “I sure would enjoy a Coke,” he said. What could it hurt at this stage? I thought, and after running it by the hospice nurses, I brought him a large soda. He savored every sip.

Later that day he took an immediate, rapid turn. The director of the facility sat with me in vigil and told how the nurses had suctioned the Coke from his lungs. How he’d coughed relentlessly in the hours after I’d left. I ran from the room sobbing. The hospice staff informed us we had hours to days.

The deaths of our eldest aren’t meant to create turbulence with their finality. They signify the end of a life well lived. So when the tears came on with such strength, I was thrown. And it wasn’t simply the guilt I felt for almost accidentally killing him, I was also terribly sad to lose my longtime companion in caregiving. A sadness that eclipsed entirely the relief I’d anticipated when the caregiving was hardest.

Because grief, like death, doesn’t adhere to our constructs. The wished-for deaths of ailing loved ones doesn’t make them any less loved. It only means we hoped for an end to suffering, on both accounts. And deaths that are supposed to be small can sometimes feel big.

But Bill’s spirit wasn’t going to let go that easily. After a period of non-responsiveness that looked like imminent death, he started to improve on his own. He ate meals and carried on jovial conversation. His tenacity carried him forward.

The encounter with death illuminated a love that transcended our struggles. When he passed on his own terms in May, I found myself able to succumb wholly to grief without judgment and appreciate the four years we’d spent together in a close caregiving relationship. The funeral commemorated a life that spanned nearly a century, putting those four years into a birds-eye perspective. They were sometimes burdensome, yes, and sometimes beautiful, but only a small portion of a rich and varied life: of his and mine both.